Whether your family is gathering virtually or has found a safe way to be together in person, there are bound to be some tensions around this year’s holidays. We choose our friends, and a recent poll from the Pew Research Center shows that nearly 80% of Americans report having just a few or no friends who supported a presidential candidate other than the one they did. Family members are not chosen, and because adult experiences differ, political views can also be divergent. How do you approach holidays with people you don’t want to alienate, but with whom you heartily disagree on some issues important to you?
Think about what you want to get and give this Holiday.
Ask yourself: What are my goals for this time with family? Think about the memories you want to create and the impact you want to have. Memories are valuable tools in the pursuit of happiness, and family memories may be in short supply during a pandemic. You can see this time as opportunity to create stories to tell for generations, or you can see it as opportunity to make a point to people who think differently than you do. Unfortunately, those two agendas may not mix; you may have to choose between the two. What do you want to get out of the time together? How do you want people to experience you?
Recognize impediments to productive conversation
Flashing holiday lights, kids with sugar highs, and fears about COVID will likely leave most people with limited emotional bandwidth. This is definitely not the best time to bring up topics that are sure to ruffle feathers. These kinds of dialogues require all of our emotional resources and attention.
If dwindling emotional reserves don’t deter you from talking about politics, some of the other potential barriers to effective communication might. If you are mingling with family outside of your usual cohort, the CDC recommends social distancing and face masks. The further away from someone you are, the more difficult it is to read subtle facial expressions. Add in a face mask, and you may have no idea that Uncle Sal is about to start screaming, or Aunt Mary break down in tears. Houston psychologist Susan Pollard advises, “Virtual conversations can also be challenging due to technical difficulties like delays that create people talking over each other or not hearing what the other person said.” Pollard’s therapy practice is mostly virtual these days.
Create a plan for safe topics and conversations.
If you’ve made a commitment to steer clear of political talk during holiday visits, preparation is key. Think about safe topics and activities before you get together with family. Shared positive experiences foster a sense of connection, and it’s easy to find things to enjoy together, no matter your political perspective. For example, family members can cook together whether they are in the same kitchen or connected virtually in separate kitchens. Sharing old family recipes is especially powerful, because it calls family members to reminisce about holidays past. creating a sentimental sense of shared culture.
Seek to understand.
You might have decided it’s best not to talk about who you voted for or their policies on climate change, but perhaps your grandmother has not, and you find yourself in a conversation you did not invite. What then? If disengaging isn’t possible, there are some ways to participate in the conversation without raising the heat. From his innovative research about communication in romantic relationships, John Gottman advises that couples who disagree adopt a stance of “seeking to understand” rather than seeking to win an argument. He says that this pursuit can deepen and strengthen a relationship, whereas “winning” does not; the relationship fairs better if nobody actually “wins!” We can apply this to family political disputes as well.
In seeking to understand, it’s important to think about and explore other people’s perspectives. Recognize that some people’s personal values were created around very salient and even traumatic experiences. Likewise, older relatives had very different upbringings than younger generations, and it’s important to realize how those different pathways can inform different political views.
If you find yourself in the middle of uncomfortable conversations, be self aware. Know when you might start to contribute in an unhealthy way. Another applicable point of Gottman’s is that conversations become unproductive when the participants’ tensions run too high, as measured by a heart rate over 100 bpm. He calls this overwhelming experience “flooding.” Flooding leads to erratic conversation, which can lead to emotional disengagement, and eventually, dissolution of relationships. When you feel your heart racing and breath coming quickly, know that you need to practice some quick self-soothing, or even call a time out and step away for the sake of the relationship.
Do something different.
If, after looking at the preparation needed and assessing your own stress level, being with family feels unsafe or looks too daunting this year, it’s OK to do something different. While traditions are important to keeping a family together, they are worth modifying if adhering to them insures conflict. It’s OK to have a briefer visit this year – either via FaceTime or at a safe, in person distance. It’s also OK to clear your calendar of family gatherings for the time being. Licensed marriage and family counselor Daniel Garces says, “I have a number of people every year who decide to cancel holidays for various reasons. I know clients who aren’t eating turkey this year because they don’t want to even try to get in the holiday spirit. It’s easier to not acknowledge and engage in the holiday spirit than try to create a Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving when that can’t work this year.”
Know that this is temporary.
The kinds of tension that all Americans are holding on to this year are unprecedented, and so not likely to be repeated. It’s probable that next year, and even next month will bring some greater ease and peace. With that calm will come renewed social and emotional reserves that might allow for important political conversations that can build bridges in families, and eventually foster healing in communities and even in our nation.